The kings of forró are Luiz Gonzaga and Jackson do Pandeiro. Both men were from the northeast of Brazil. Gonzaga was from the rural farming village of Caicara and Jackson came from the coastal city of Paraíba. It would be simplistic to call Gonzaga the ruralist and Jackson the urbanite. Both found fame and fortune by taking northeastern music to big city audiences. Both men were sophisticated writers and consummate performers.
Gonzaga and Jackson had long recording careers, stretching back to the days when 78 rpm records were the main musical exchange commodity. Gonzaga began recording in 1940. Most of his catalogue is on RCA, except for a brief and fruitful stint on Odeon in 1973 and 1974. Jackson do Pandeiro’s first release came in 1953. He subsequently recorded for multiple labels, but his longest period was on Philips from 1960 to 1970. Most of Gonzaga’s catalogue has been respectfully reissued with original artwork, both on LP and CD. Jackson do Pandeiro’s catalogue has received relatively poor treatment. A few of his original albums have been reissued properly, but the majority of his work has been relegated to slapdash compilation CDs.
The 2 men have been immortalized as bronze statues performing together in Campina Grande, Paraíba. Gonzaga is playing his trademark piano accordion and wearing his famous flipped taco-shaped Lampião the cangaço* hat. Jackson is dancing and playing the pandeiro**, a drum/tambourine from which his moniker was derived. Although this may give the impression of unity, the performers never recorded together and were stylistically different.
Luiz Gonzaga’s status as musical historian and celebrated performer is unparalleled. He is known as the man who popularized and even defined the styles of music called forró and baião. In terms of influence, Luiz Gonzaga is to Brazil like Alan Lomax, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly are combined in the US. Gonzaga was a powerful figure in northern Brazil. Legend has it that he was even able to stop violence between two rival clans by giving a performance. No one else, outside of religious icons, were held in such reverence by the people of the northeast. He continued to play the types of music he helped to popularize until his death in 1989 at the age of 77.
Jackson do Pandeiro had career highs and lows, but was not in equal standing, in terms of stature, with Gonzaga when he passed away in 1982 at the age of 62. His reputation has grown since his death. Some of this is thanks to the Tropicalia crowd, Gilberto Gil in particular, who recorded Jackson’s songs and cited his influence. During his lifetime, northeastern musicians like Genival Lacerda, Abdias, Elino Julião, Osvaldo Oliveira, Os 3 Nordeste, Messias Holanda and Jacinto Silva rubbed shoulders with, and wanted to be like, Jackson do Pandeiro. Why? Jackson wrote and interpreted excellent songs and released extraordinary records.
Jackson was the son of a coco singer named Flora Mourão, Jackson’s mastery of that style and killer vocal phrasing mixed with the samba, forró, marchas and virtually every other northeastern form gave his records depth and diversity. Although successful, Jackson was not wealthy and never had the luxury of resting on his laurels. Jackson’s records never declined in quality. He is still lauded as the most exciting performer ever from the northeast of Brazil. Song for song, Jackson do Pandeiro’s catalogue remains second to none.
*Lampião is a legendary bandit from the Brazilian northeast. The distinctive outfits of the cangaceiros (men of cangaço-bandits) have been adopted by many groups that play forró music. Like the bandits of the Old West in the United States and the bank robbers of the Great Depression, Lampião is considered a folk hero by some and a terrorist/rapist/thief by others. He was eventually captured and beheaded, along with his gang. This was photographed for posterity, looking like a cross between a Mexican Day Of The Dead shrine and a gruesome display of headhunter spoils.
**A pandeiro is a tambourine with jingles and a membrane played with distinct rhythm in many types of Brazilian music.